The State of the Union's subtler points: Abstinence only sex education

Abstinence only sex education vs. Comprehensive sex education:
A Utilitarian Analysis

One under-discussed point from the State of the Union Address was Bush’s proposed increase in for abstinence only sex education. Here is a utilitarian analysis of this program’s history, future implications and alternative forms of sex education.

Abstinence only sex education vs. Comprehensive sex education:
A Utilitarian Analysis

One under-discussed point from the State of the Union Address was Bush’s proposed increase in for abstinence only sex education. Here is a utilitarian analysis of this program’s history, future implications and alternative forms of sex education.

A debate has emerged across our country over how to teach our young people about sex. Two distinct groups have emerged on this issue: on one side is abstinence only sex education proponents and on the other are those that favor of comprehensive sex education. No matter the method of education, the goals of both types of sex education are to reduce unwanted pregnancies and thus abortions as well as to reduce sexually transmitted diseases. Utilitarianism lends itself as a good medium to analyze this debate as there is clear empirical data that shows the effectiveness of each side in their stated goals in educating children and young adults about sex. Through empirical data the pain and pleasure resulting from each system can be analyzed. To facilitate this discussion I will compare Texas and Sweden. Texas is an example of state that has heavily instituted abstinence only sex education. Also, there been recent studies done on the effectiveness of this regime. In distinct contrast to Texas, Sweden is the example of a country that has had comprehensive sex education for over fifty years.

The underlying question to this discussion is whether sexuality education is needed. This question is important because many cultures do not view sexuality education as necessary. Furthermore, the belief in these conservative societies is that sex education will put sex into the minds of children prematurely, leading to earlier sex. Texas is an example of a conservative society and Sweden exemplifies a progressive society. In Children’s Sexual Thinking, Goldman and Goldman (1982) profess that children are sexual thinkers from birth. Children constantly seek information regarding sexuality and make their conclusion based on whatever information is available. Their evidence shows that, in comparison to Swedish children, American children were particularly ignorant of correct sexual information. The problem is that the American children and young adults were not aware that the information was incorrect and were ill prepared for sexual adulthood. Children will be curious about sex whether or not they are given correct information (Goldman 1982). Withholding information does nothing more than propagate ignorance. There also seems to be the negative consequences that are widely talked about in the United States and Europe of sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy and teenage abortions (Haffner 1996). This ignorance also infiltrates the realm of sexual satisfaction. These American children and young adults do not even know the basic sexual biology, and such ignorance certainly has an effect of sexual performance.
The United States is an enormous country. However, each individual state has almost total discretion in determining whether or not to have sexuality education. Furthermore, each state has the discretion to choose the material that their sexuality education program contains and the aims of the program. Texas is a state that has been the center of considerable debate because of their insistence on abstinence-only sex education. The focus of their program is to persuade young people to wait until marriage. Their program does this by teaching young people that sex is dangerous, contraceptives do not work and society accepts its young people to be virginal until marriage and straight (Connolly, 2003).

At the epicenter of the debate on sexuality education is Texas law Sec.28.004 of the Texas Education Code, which states that all sexuality education programs must “present abstinence from sexual activity as the preferred choice of behavior in relationship to all sexual activity for unmarried persons of school age” and “devote more attention to abstinence from sexual activity than to any other behavior.” The state law goes further in creating “a local health council to assist the district in ensuring that local community values and health issues are reflected in the districts human sexuality instruction.” The law bans condom instruction, and the only information provided about condoms is that they don’t work (Mariner, 2002).

The state law goes farther because of the community based clause. Homosexuality is taught as a “lifestyle that is unacceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offence under state law” (Human Rights Watch, 2002). The repression is so extensive that even masturbation, a safe alternative to sex, is not mentioned in the curriculum. What is taught in the classrooms of Texas is even more chilling to children than what is not. As young as 12 and 13, children are indoctrinated into the abstinence only program. The program focuses on using medical examples, showing children what can happen if they have sex. The educator show slides of genital warts and diseased cervixes. The tactic is scare kids into not having sex. They are taught all the negative effects of sex and given abstinence as their only protection. The philosophy of these programs is that “sex education programs aren’t the proper venue for presenting information about contraceptive options. We tell students, ‘if you’re going to have sex, you need to see a health care professional’… It’s not the job of the school system to treat people who are engaging in risky behaviors” (Trubo, 2002). The Texas culture is against the idea that young people can have sex, and that it is normal. However, in reality the numbers show that abstinence among youth is not the norm.

Proponents of abstinence only sex education, like Leslee Unruh, argue that children understand the message of condom use and contraception. Unruh states “Just go to any public bathroom. I was in Atlanta, and we went to five restrooms in the mall, and every one of them had condoms…Every time I turn on the TV, I see information about condoms. We’ve been throwing latex at these kids everywhere. They are getting this information” (Trubo, 2002). These statements reflect the negative attitudes toward sexuality in Texas and the general lack of dialog about sex. It is hard to believe that kids are getting the information they need in such a hostile atmosphere, places were the dialogue between students and educators are censored by the government. Furthermore, the likelihood of a young adult approaching an educator and revealing that she is going to be sexually active seems remote.

The abstinence only program has the goal of reducing teen pregnancies and reducing STDs. The Texas program has shown little success in achieving its goal and may even cause more pregnancies and incidents of STDs. In 1998, Texas registered 123 pregnancies per 1,000 women age 15-19. In 1997, Texas ranked 9th in the U.S. in reported cases of Chlamydia (WHFPT, 2002). The problem is exemplified by the fact that those teens that “pledge” to be abstinent until marriage delay sex only for a matter of months, and when they do choose to have sex they tend to do so without protection (Trubo, 2002).

Analyzing the abstinence program from a strictly utilitarian perspective heads very negative results. It is plain that the pain that this policy inflicts on the youth of Texas far outweighs pleasure that the policy brings. The only pleasure that this policy could possibly bring is the pleasure that a few people will get for staying abstinent until marriage and being sure that one will stay pure and disease free. Considering that few people are able to achieve such pleasure from this policy and the pain that it inflicts because of increased instances of teen pregnancies and STDs make this program fail the moral arithmetic.

On the other end of the sex education spectrum is the experience of the Swedish youth. Sweden began mandatory sex education in all schools in 1956 with the goal of reducing the number of teenage mothers. The Swedish culture views sex as a general health and wellness issue. Sex is seen as a natural and necessary part of life. Sex is freely talked about within the family, further enhancing the work done in school. The first incarnation of the Swedish sex education program lasted until 1975. At this point, the program was determined not to be a full success because the rate of teenage mothers went down, but teen abortions went up. After 1975, the program became more extensive, and no longer “explicitly recommended abstinence when young; nor did it emphasize that sex should take place only within marriage” (Council, 1999). Sexuality education started at younger ages with more focusing on teaching contraception. The philosophy of the Swedish educational system is best described by Dr. Erik Centerwall of Sweden’s Ministry of Education: “The foundation of sexuality education is the freedom to choose, the freedom to enjoy, and the freedom to be [yourself]” (Yu-jung, 2002). He tempers his comments by stating that, “Sexuality is testing and understanding your ways of being while the education of sexuality will teach you to do it in a safe way”(Yu-jung 2002). The overall emphasis of the Swedish system is building a trust between the teacher and the students. More generally, it can be said that the Swedes believe that young people will act responsibly when they are given all the information.

This trust is built in the classroom. The sexuality teachers in Sweden are no longer given thick textbooks to memorize. Instead of strict guidelines, “much of the sexuality education in schools today comes from the exchanging experiences and learning with others” (Haffner, 1996). This mode achieves a sexuality education built on openness and respect where the approach is anything but “dogmatic and moralistic” (Haffner, 1996). The approach is further understood when considering adolescent sexual development. “When discovering their sexuality, young people are, at the same time, creating their own identity…they think themselves that people should not know about their sexual world….the task for educators is to break through the silence” (Haffner, 1996). The goal is to create a forum in which the children feel comfortable and can learn about sex and sexuality in a positive environment. Furthermore, the educator then must make the children see that they are normal and uniquely special. This process is called “normalization and individualization” and is a core part of the sexuality education philosophy of Sweden (Haffner, 1996).

Sweden also accommodates an open dialog about sex. Contraception is widely available and inexpensive. Sex education is grounded upon human rights (IEPFPD, 1999). The International Planned Parenthood Federation’s (1999) country profile of Sweden states that “Advice is free-of-charge and the cost of contraceptives is subsidized, with the exception of orals. Contraceptives are widely available and used.” Furthermore, in 1975 on demand abortions became free of charge and did not need parental approval.

The results of the Swedish system can be taken interpreted in two periods: 1956-1974 and 1975-present. In the first period, the goal of sexuality education was to reduce teenage fertility, and teenage pregnancies were reduced but mainly due to the use of abortion. Since this was not acceptable to the Swedish people, the sexuality education program was revised. The results of its second incarnation have been tremendous, especially considering the emergence of a third problem other than teen pregnancies and abortions: sexually transmitted diseases. Their approach is that “teenage sexual activity is neither undesirable nor desirable, but is inevitable. Teenage use of contraception was viewed as highly desirable because it would prevent both childbearing and abortion” (IEPFPD, 1999). In 1965 the Swedish teenage (age 15-19) fertility rate was 49 per 1,000; by 1984, it was 10 per 1,000. To compare, the U.S. in 1995 was 61 per 1,000 (IEPFPD, 1999). The results could have been due to several factors: teenagers were delaying sex, had sex less, used induced abortions at a higher level than before, or teenagers had become skilled in contraceptive methods. The data point toward the increased contraceptive use as being the most influential factor in reducing pregnancies and abortions, and Sweden has a relatively low rate of AIDS/STD’s compared to the rest of Europe and the United States.

The results of the Swedish sexuality education system are more than just biological because Swedes feel more positively about their sexuality, feel more positively about their first time sexual experiences and yet tend to only have three sexual partners in their life time (IEPFPD, 1999). The only negative aspect is that teens do start having sex an a relatively young age of 14 or 15, but those numbers are no lower than Texas for example, where the focus is on teenage abstinence.

Through a Utilitarian analysis the Swedish system does very well. It has been very effective at reducing the pain of unwanted pregnancies, abortions and STDs to the vast majority of its young people. Also the Swedish program leaves its young people with more positive feelings about their bodies and their sexuality. This leads to a clear positive quotient for the moral arithmetic.

It is one option to only attack the Texas system and identify its numerous short comings; however the Swedish example shows that there are other options that work in the world and that the Texans could draw on and create a system that works. The Swedish system does the best job in promoting the overall good. The abstinence only crowd could argue that teenagers having sex outside the bounds of a biblical marriage at all is a detriment to them and society, however this argument does not accept the fact that teenagers even with their abstinence training still have sex outside of marriage, and their training is only a detriment when these young people start having sex. The abstinence only sex education does not promote to overall good, and if anything causes more pain for the majority of young people having sex. The few young people who are already believe in abstinence maybe bolstered by this positive reinforcement of their beliefs, but that is a small gain for the detriments that come for the rest of society. The Swedish system on the other hand does the most overall good for the greatest number because the Swedes accept that teens will have sex and accept that in order to reduce the pain of teen pregnancies, abortions and STDs you have to teach comprehensive sex education.

Posted by Miguel at January 23, 2004 11:18 PM | TrackBack (1)